Various news stories and online comments reference a John Madden quip about an “old bologna sandwich” during Super Bowl XXXIII in early 1999:

  • The NY Times says: “He often eats old bologna sandwiches, the kind that sit around until he gets hungry. (As a visitor to his bus, I know this assertion is credible.)”
  • The South Florida Sun Sentinel writes: “When the game was in doubt, Madden compared the Falcons to “an old bologna sandwich — if it sits around and sits around, you’re going to eat it.””
  • The Baltimore Sun writes: “Madden later analogized Denver’s failure to put the Falcons away early to “an old bologna sandwich” that kept hanging around and hanging around and eventually would “start to look good.””
  • A Reddit comment: “My favorite madden quote was when he compared some team to a bologna sandwich, “just sits around, sits around, and eventually, somebody’s gonna eat it!” WTF!”

I can’t remember where I came across this quote, but it’s been in the back on my mind for a long time, and thanks to a new baby that’s keeping me up at night and an op-ed that I’m trying to write (using this as an analogy!), I managed to track down a (great) video of the telecast from Daily Motion (see time stamp 1:17:00 or so), so I can now definitively report for the clamoring hordes what Madden actually said.

The context: Led by John Elway, the Denver Broncos were ahead 17-6 late in the 3rd quarter but had just missed back-to-back scoring opportunities (two botched field goals). The Atlanta Falcons weren’t playing all that well, but they were still in the game thanks to those missed field goals by the Broncos, and after a few good plays by the Falcons they were moving into Denver territory and we get this:

John Madden: Atlanta… Denver Broncos, by missing field goals and things… I mean, Atlanta has had all kinds of opportunities.

Pat Summerall: They really have.

Madden: They just hang in there. They’re like an old bologna sandwich or something. You know, you let it sit around there and sit around there, you get hungry enough, pretty soon you eat it. [Sumerall laughs.] And that’s what Atlanta is doing. You let them sit around there, you let them sit around there, you let them sit around there, they’re going to start looking pretty good.

Summerall: How many old bologna sandwiches have you eaten?

Madden: A lot of old bologna sandwiches when I was hungry and they were sitting around, I guarantee you.

Conclusion: I think this is a pretty great quote, but I needed to find the video because there are so many possible interpretations, in part because of the conflicting implications of “pretty soon you eat it” versus “they’re going to start looking pretty good” and in part because of the related mystery of exactly who or what Madden is comparing to the old bologna sandwich. The video shows that what Madden is trying to emphasize is that even though the Falcons haven’t played all that well, they’re only down by 11 points and if they can just hang in there and keep plugging away at it then they’ll have a chance to narrow the score and maybe win the game.

In short: The Falcons were the “old bologna sandwich”, and by missing those field goals the Broncos were letting them “sit around” until the Falcons were starting to “look pretty good”. IMHO, of the bulleted items above, the Baltimore Sun article is the best, although it takes some work to understand it. Kudos to writer Milton Kent (@SportsAtLarge)!

Epilogue: Two plays after this exchange, with the Falcons deep in Denver territory, a pass from the Falcons was deflected, intercepted, and returned 58 yards to set up a Denver touchdown that pushed their lead to 24-6. Then another Falcon turnover pushed the score to 31-6. The Broncos ended up winning 34-19.